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Officials tighten Mt Sinabung security to keep villagers out

Publication Date : 04-02-2014


Security is being tightened around Mount Sinabung in North Sumatra as officials scramble to prevent people from entering a 3km radius around the erupting volcano after 15 people were killed by superheated clouds of ash on Saturday.

Troops and police have been told to guard all entry points to the red zone, deemed most dangerous, as scorching 700 deg C ash moving at speeds of up to 800kmh can blanket the area within minutes of an eruption, said officials.

Eleven of the dead were students, some as young as 17 years old. Seven were church volunteers on a mission to persuade resistant villagers to evacuate, while the rest wanted to see the volcano eruption up close.

One of the remaining four was undergraduate Rizal Syahputra, working as a journalist for online media outlet Jurnal Sumut, who had gone to video and photograph the volcano in hopes of making a documentary to raise funds for the evacuees.

The rest were villagers checking on their houses.

"While I was inspecting an area in the red zone, I met some villagers and advised them to evacuate, but they scolded me. They said as they were on their land, they had a right to be there," said Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB).

"We have put up no-entry signs and stationed guards such as soldiers at these entry points to villages, but the residents still managed to slip in through smaller unmarked roads."

The breach into the red zone is an indication of how complacency on the part of villagers coupled with lax security has complicated disaster management efforts nearly five months after the volcano first erupted.

The 15 were the first to die as a direct result of the eruptions, as previous deaths occurred in the shelters due to illness or old age.

Yesterday, Mount Sinabung spewed clouds of hot ash and rocks up to 2,500m into the air, hampering search operations.

BNPB said it expects the death toll to rise, though it is unsure how many are still missing.

It has also discovered eight ash-covered motorcycles and two helmets, as well as a bag containing a laptop and another containing a handycam.

All have yet to be claimed, and all were found within the red zone.

Nearly 32,000 people are now displaced and taking refuge in 42 relief shelters.

But the inactivity in the cramped relief shelters has made many restless.

Some sneak out in the day to see to their farms and return at night, like Doni Milala, 60. He suffered deep burns from the hot ash while visiting his farm in Sukameriah, a village 2.7km from the crater where most died.

Shelter coordinators such as Bastanta Purba told The Straits Times that they are unable to control such movements because they have not been given the right to impose curfews, something they see as inhumane anyway.

North Sumatra Governor Gatut Pujo Nugroho issued a stern reminder yesterday: "This should be the last tragedy. No one should cross even the 5km zone, regardless of their excuse."

Also of concern are local tourists who travel from the provincial capital Medan or neighbouring provinces to a field near Sukameriah to get a closer view of the erupting volcano.

Others carry out unsolicited social projects, such as the students who tried to persuade villagers to leave.

The intense coverage of the eruptions has scared away most tourists from all towns near volcanoes such as in Mount Bromo, in East Java, and Mount Dieng, in Central Java, said Sutopo.

"We urge residents (in these areas) not to panic and be fearful," he said, adding that eruptions are usually preceded by warning signs, and proper evacuations will be done.

So far, no flights have been disrupted, said Transport Ministry spokesman Bambang Ervan.


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